Academic journal article Estonian Journal of Archaeology

Could Broken Bone Combs Have Had New lives?Kas Purunenud Luukammil Oli Voimalusi Uueks Eluks?

Academic journal article Estonian Journal of Archaeology

Could Broken Bone Combs Have Had New lives?Kas Purunenud Luukammil Oli Voimalusi Uueks Eluks?

Article excerpt


The idea that objects, like people, have biographies was first suggested by Igor Kopytoff (1986). Since that time the biographical approach has been quite widely used in archaeology (e.g. Appadurai 1986; Miller 1987, 126; Lubar & Kingery 1993; Rawson 1993; Shanks 1998; Gosden & Marshall 1999). In Estonian archaeology this topic has been tackled by Andres Tvauri (2001, 165 ff.; 2002, 276 ff.) and Kristiina Johanson (2006, 100). In the biographical approach, according to Chris Caple, the object is treated as part of a production and use sequence, in which materials are transformed into products, using skills of craftsmen who, in turn, use the available tools and facilities (Caple 2000, 76; 2006, 13 ff., fig. 3.1). Besides "biography" and "life history", the term "use life" has been employed (Gosden & Marshall 1999, 170). Linda Hurcombe stresses that the use life of an object can outlast its maker (e.g. Choyke 2006, 2007), objects could have been used in different ways and have meant different things; she presents these object-people interactions through time as spirals (Hurcombe 2007, 22 ff., fig. 2.3). But although the biographical approach has successfully dealt with the births and deaths of objects, it is often difficult to say something about their lives between their birth and death (Joy & Armstrong Oma 2008).

In the present article I discuss biographies of artefacts analyzing their possibilities for a "new life" through mending or modifying. Artefacts do not have biographies without people. Both the birth and death of an artefact, but also its life, are connected with people. As Julian Thomas (2007, 17) puts it, "we might wish to say that artefacts too have a past, but only by virtue of their engagement and involvement in a human world".

Perhaps in the case of a repaired or recycled object it would be possible to trace more persons who might have had some connection with that artefact. What could we find out about these people? Is it possible to find out who tried to give a new life to the broken artefact, and why? How many persons were connected with the "new life" of an artefact? Was it just one person, the owner, who repaired it and used it again? Or was there a craftsman involved in the process of giving a new life to it? Or maybe the owner discarded it and someone else found it and repaired, recycled or reused it?

People made decisions whether to discard the artefact or whether to repair it. Why were some artefacts discarded after breaking and others were repaired or recycled (Choyke & Daroczi-Szabo in print; Choyke & Kovats in print)? Were practical reasons most important--maybe it was not easy to get a new one? Were only valuable things repaired? What was the value? Did the artefact need to be expensive or imported or maybe it had to have some sentimental value or some meaning because of which the artefact was seen as worthy of a new life? Or could it sometimes happen just by chance? In the present article I try to find answers to these questions using the biographies of combs from different periods as case studies.

Different possibilities for a broken comb

Fine comb teeth that often broke were the weakest part of bone combs (e.g. Luik 1998, pls I-IV). There were two possibilities in the subsequent life of such a comb--it was either thrown away or repaired. If repaired, the broken part could be replaced or the shape of the artefact was modified. The possibility chosen might have depended on the skills of the repairer. In both cases, the biography of the comb would continue having the same function and meaning as before breaking. Sometimes it was not possible to repair the comb so that it could be used for combing again.

Mending a comb--retention of the previous function

One way to mend a comb would be through replacing the broken part. There are different possibilities concerning which parts and to which extent they were replaced. …

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